by Johnny Fikru and Johnny Mao
It is no accident that ChuMinh Tofu still stands tall in a spot that other businesses have long since vacated.
To date, Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguyễn and her staff have held down the spot on South Jackson Street for 10 years. Tanya’s journey to ChuMinh has involved a myriad of pathways. Medical school in Vietnam, biochemistry, a mindfulness in Buddhism, a passion for tofu, and a culture of caring — all manifest into the language of love present at ChuMinh to this day: food and mutual aid.
“I met Tanya years ago — I would come to ChuMinh Tofu and buy meals for community meetings. In the era I was raised in, banh mi was part of the diet at community meetings,” said organizer Johnny Fikru. “As I walked inside trying to determine what I wanted to eat, I was struck by the warm presence of Tanya. Anyone that’s ever been lucky enough to feel that energy knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s an inviting and warm presence. It’s authentic. It’s caring. It is peaceful. I was welcomed in a way that I haven’t felt at a restaurant, and it felt so great.”
Sunday Mutual Aid With ‘The Eggrolls’
In an expression of this love, Tanya has built a special set of bonds and relationships with a network of local activists and organizers. Every Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., this network — lovingly dubbed “The Eggrolls” — comes together to serve meals to over 150 neighbors, elders, and visitors in the Chinatown-International District (CID). Tanya sources each meal from local farms and gardens. In addition to serving meals, the group also distributes mutual aid supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), socks, backpacks, and hygiene products. The Eggrolls share common ground in the basic tenets to meet people where they are at and recognize suffering in all of its forms and causes, where no one is undeserving of aid.
Of course, the organizers at ChuMinh would not be one with the cause if there were not a problem.
Why Mutual Aid, and Why Now?
In Washington State, 75,607 households, 45% of them with children, said they would be likely to leave their homes due to eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This past summer, the City of Seattle forcibly removed and displaced over 40 encampments and hundreds of residents during a pandemic. Through these sweeps, the City of Seattle has criminalized and punished poverty, as the top causes of houselessness include lack of affordable housing and a living wage, domestic violence, and untreated mental illness. To be sure, houseless people are also more likely to suffer violent crime than to carry it out. Yet, only 1.3% of calls to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) are for violent crime, despite the City funding SPD for $409 million.
ChuMinh and its mutual aid formation represents an alternative and a choice. It represents an alternative and a choice to not accept dehumanization as the norm and instead to find small steps to intervene; to decide for ourselves how we want the world to look; to trust and not fear. There is an alternative and a choice to running a business as usual: one where people can organize for authentic generosity and respect with the city’s most stigmatized residents. And there is an alternative and a choice to support the oppressed and not the oppressor.
With the rise of disruptive and harmful sweeps of encampments, we know that our communities are under attack. The beauty of organizing at ChuMinh is that it’s a harm-reduction strategy. Feeding people in need is harm reduction. Providing PPE in a pandemic is harm reduction. Making people feel welcomed no matter the circumstance and cleaning up the spaces that criminalize community members is harm reduction.
ChuMinh Tofu is a model of a restaurant mobilizing community members that builds on the strength of mutual aid, directly supporting people on the frontlines of multiple crises. What would it be like if even more restaurants could do the same?
“ChuMinh Tofu and the self-titled Eggrolls have the blueprint and would love to share with anyone how to do this,” offered Fikru. Remembering how his experience with The Eggrolls began, he said, “When I was sitting at a table waiting for my food, Kathy, an organizer, asked me if I would like to join her in serving meals for a couple of hours. On a whim, and since I had some free time, I replied, ‘Of course!’”
Fast-forward over two years and counting, The Eggrolls organize rain or shine. Since the start of the pandemic, the network has grown, including partnerships with CID Coalition, an intergenerational, People of Color-led group of CID residents, workers, and community members with deep cultural and organizing roots in this neighborhood.
Anyone can show up to ChuMinh. ChuMinh is part of a grassroots movement of fully volunteer-run mutual aid formations that have mobilized in the Seattle area, including Homeless Organizing Community, COVID-19 Mutual Aid, South King County & Eastside Mutual Aid, and From The Heart PNW.
A Note from Tanya Nguyễn, Owner of ChuMinh Tofu
“Because now people expect it — I’m thinking about the expectation from them. They may be just so disappointed if they come and we’re not open that day. [Thinking about that] is so sad,” Tanya said in an interview with Nathan Bombardier for Seattlogue.
“Some people expect, maybe on a Saturday, I imagine that someone’s hungry and they think, ‘I cannot find food.’ But they think, ‘Tomorrow I can go to this place, and I can have something hot to eat.’ So maybe with that thought it will help them survive to the next day. To help them keep moving on. So that’s why we cannot fail. … Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, if you want to take a break, you should close the restaurant.’ But on Sunday we have to be open.”
To participate or support ChuMinh Tofu and the ragtag group of mutual aid organizers “The Eggrolls,” please check out our Instagram page.
Trinity Covington and Nathan Bombardier contributed to this article.
Johnny Fikru is a proud Black community member who loves hip hop, mutual aid organizing, and, of course, ChuMinh Tofu. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)
Johnny Mao is a community organizer busy putting theory into practice, or maybe the other way around. Johnny organizes with the ChuMinh egg rolls crew.
📸 Featured Image: “The Eggrolls” taking a group photo after serving 150 meals to community. (Photo: Elliot Crane)
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